Monday, 14 November 2016

Borneo Suffering at its worst, and best

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.
We were chilling in an idyllic campsite in the rural heart of Sabah, with a cool, clean river to bathe in. We had great food worthy of a five-star hotel, because it was cooked for us by a chef who used to work in a five-star hotel. Steaming hot fresh-brew coffee in the morning, with home-cured bacon, sausages and eggs.
Mother hens and chicks, and mummy sows and their piglets, wandered all over, scrounging for grub. Pastoral scenes don't get much better than this.

Bacon and eggs, anyone?
Yet, we were not content. We were impatient. We couldn't wait to get on with it. We had to wait for it.
It” was Borneo Safari 2016. Specifically, the hardcore section that some eager beavers complained was “only 40 kilometres” long. Some of us, who had taken three days to traverse just six kilometres in previous editions, reserved comment, looking forward with equal measure of trepidation and anticipation.
'Andy' the Landy - veteran of three Borneo Safaris (2012, 2014, 2016)
My Land Rover Defender (a four-year-old 110 named “Andy” in honour of a fondly remembered and dearly missed friend from earlier Safaris) and I, and co-driver Afonso Cerejo from Portugal, were embedded with Team Mitsubishi Motor Malaysia (MMM), which was sending in four of their new Tritons, plus four customer cars, and several other support cars of various marques and models. 
An added touch of glamour came in the person of renowned lady racer Leona Chin, also known as Malaysia's Drift Queen, who delights crowds by driving a Triton sideways.
With several members of the motoring media in our group, were placed in the convoy behind Team Isuzu, long-time sponsor of the event, who were behind the officials, photographers, competitors and the scouts who were blazing the trail.
2016 got off to a promising start, with a wide river to ford before reaching Kampung Tibabar, accessed by a track from the famous Poring hot springs, near the high-altitude interior town of Ranau.
Although the trail was mild by 4X4 standards (we came across several Perodua Kancils and Vivas), the river crossing yielded plenty of excitement and photo opportunities.
Day 1/2 Camp at Tibabar
The first night's camp at Tibabar was pleasant, if not exactly exciting. We set up camp, we dined, chatted a bit, and got a good night's sleep. That was about it.
The following day's move to Campsite Two, at Kampung Garung, added to the feeling that we could be in for some fun, with some mushy mud along the way serving as an appetiser. Nothing too hard though, and no winch rope had to be pulled out.
Kpg Garung was supposed to be home for a night, and then two, and then three. Team Isuzu, who had arrived there a day earlier, were on standby to move out since early in the morning, and then noon, and were still waiting by the evening when the plan was changed – they would stay the night.
Early the next morning, they packed up hurriedly and left bright and early for the entrance to the hardcore trail. The day passed slowly for the rest of us, chilling in the stream, until around 4pm, when the Isuzu rolled back in. They had travelled a grand total of about 2km, spent the whole day by the roadside waiting, and then decided to return to the village.
The trail was tough. The scouts reported making less than 1.7km of progress in their first six hours, and 3km in the whole of the first day.
We would just have to relax and wait for our turn.
Hurry up ... and wait
Welcome to the Borneo Safari, one of the toughest offroad vehicle events in Malaysia. Held annually in Sabah since 1991, the reputation has been a magnet for thrill-seekers, drawing about a thousand 4X4 aficionados to Kota Kinabalu for the grand flag-off at the tail end of each October.
Expectations are always high at the flag-off and, this year, participants were served extra helpings from the full menu. Even before it was over, there was already talk about it being “the best ever”, “the toughest in living memory” and “the most fun we've had in a long time”. (Having taking part in in seven Borneo Safaris – 1992, 2008, and every year since 2012, this writer would concur with these sentiments.)
This, from people who consider it fun to be forced to sleep upright in the seat of a cramped 4X4, simply because there is no space around the vehicle, or what little space there is, is shin-deep in gooey mud.
Whereas previous editions served up a couple of memorable moments interspersed with leisurely drives and pleasant camping, 2016 offered the full menu – torrential rain, mud galore, torturous holes and gulleys, and slopes so steeps that winches were mandatory for both ascent and descent, and even strategically-placed logs with a better-than-50-percent chance of slamming into.
3, 2, 1 ... BUNGEE!!!!!
The notorious “bungee jump”, alternatively referred to as the roller-coaster, will be remembered as one of the highlights as BS 2016.
After a torturous uphill climb that required strenuous winching, each car had to negotiate a tight turn with steering at full lock to the right, and then be lowered gingerly on a winch line from the car behind down a steep and slippery slope.
Released from this safety line about halfway down, each driver had to negotiate the remaining distance, knowing that a huge log lay in wait at the bottom. There was no room for error, and nearly half of all cars ended the bumpy ride with a close encounter with the log, sustaining varying degrees of damage, from broken lamps to crumpled fenders to bent chassis.
Handyplast moment - poor Andy is hurt. Bad log.
Wait, there's more. A lot more. A slanted track that sends your car sliding towards a tree. There is no way to drive across, you had to stop the car, and use the winch to pull the front end in the right direction, away from the waiting tree. Some did not make it unscathed, adding to their collections of dents.
However well prepared each participant was, no matter how much the cars were modified or upgraded in anticipation of the challenges, the strain was simply too overwhelming for some.
Minor breakdowns were promptly fixed by “McGyver” mechanics but several cars which suffered major breakdowns had to be left by the side of the track, awaiting rescue at a latter date.
Oh, look what I found!
A failed gearbox, shattered differential gears, broken winches and a wheel that parted company with its hub after all its six studs sheared off were just some of the equipment failures that prematurely ended the adventure for the unfortunate few who had to hitch a ride out of the jungle.
The recovery teams, all volunteers who had to face the same or even tougher conditions just getting to the abandoned cars, continued struggling up to three days after the eight-day Safari had officially ended with the grand closing dinner.
Before each year's Safari gets underway, expectations start forming based on tales from the previous year's event. 2015 had been significant for being the Silver Jubilee event but the action itself had not been spectacular.
The 2016 terrain and weather conspired to serve up a “perfect storm” of challenges that had everyone raving about the toughest, and naturally, the best Borneo Safari ever.
Not everyone who signed up got to savour the experience, though, as more than half of the field did not get the chance to even enter the hardcore trail because of delays at the front.
The hills are steep, but the co-drivers are strong ...
Unlike in most previous events when those at the front of the convoy had an easier time with the obstacles, this year's was brutal right from the start, and for everyone, regardless of position in the queue. Those at the front suffered as much as the rearguard, who suffered as much as the meat in the sandwich.
The slow crawl at the front meant a long wait for those in the queue, and many chose, or were compelled, to take the easy way out – an escape to the nearby village of Kampung Sorinsim, between Ranau and Kota Marudu.
Slipping and sliding, the Tritons in my group took on each challenge in turn and overcame each obstacle, one at a time.
Driving and winching and crossing rickety make-shift log bridges in the dark, with intermittent and, at times, torrential rain, with no end in sight.
The low point, as well as the highlight of BS 2016, came around 1am one night, when the convoy was forced to halt because it had come up to the tail end of the group just ahead, who were still struggling with a particularly tough obstacle.
Good night ... not the most comfortable bed, though.
Surrounded by the jungle, and with no space to set up camp and a steady drizzle falling, everyone had to try to sleep as best as they could, inside the cars. The discomfort of sitting upright while still muddy and grimy was no match for the sheer exhaustion.
Add to that keeping on the same socks and shoes that have trudged through water and mud for the past 48 hours, even as you try to catch some shut-eye, simply because the thought of taking them off and putting them on again is worse. And you cannot walk more than a couple of metres in slippers without falling over. 
If there had been any doubts lingering to that point, it would have become very clear by now – this was the real deal, this was the Borneo Suffering experience that many had heard jokes about.
From then on, it was hardcore all the way. Each obstacle passed brought us a little closer to the end, the eagerly anticipated gravel road that would signal the end of the torment. But the psychological pressure would not let up so easily, with many a false “last one” before we could relax by the beautiful river at Kampung Sorinsim.
Are we in deep enough yet?
Eventually, all would emerge safely, and converged on the Magellan Sutera Harbour resort in Kota Kinabalu for the closing dinner. Everyone who was there wore the event shirt with pride as they shared tales of common hardships endured, who did what where, and whose car suffered which mishap.
Very few came out completely unscathed, but all agree that the memories are worth every scratch and dent and broken shaft or window, or even overturned car.
A touch of celebrity - Mitsubishi brought along renowned lady racer Leona Chin, a.k.a. Malaysia's Drift Queen.
It was not all fun and games, though. There was a lot of waiting, made necessary because of simple maths. If a car took 10 minutes to clear one obstacle, a hundred cars would need over 16 hours! And there were many obstacles, and many cars. The biggest test for many was that of patience, and not all scored well in this aspect. But while tensions might have run high and tempers frayed, all these pale in comparison to the satisfaction on a shared accomplishment – we all made it against the odds, and we did it together.
These memories are shared with like-minded 4X4 enthusiasts from all over Sabah but many came from farther afield, including Brunei, Sarawak and Kalimantan, and some drive their vehicles from as far away as Jakarta and Banjarmasin. This year, the international flavour included thrill-seekers from the United States, The Netherlands, Japan and Portugal.
The growing popularity of the Borneo Safari over the past quarter century is evident from the numbers. Starting with around 25 to 30 cars in the early years, the official registered entries have swollen to over 200 cars a couple of years ago, to 350 vehicles and about 1,000 participants this year.
As the closing dinner drew to its conclusion, the most common refrain heard was “see you again next year”. 
But wait, there's more. The eight days of the official Borneo Safari might have ended with the banquet and the toasts and the backslapping on the night of Nov 6, 2016, but the action was not over yet. 
There were still broken-down cars left in the jungle, and the rescue and recovery efforts would continue for several more days until all were successfully and safely brought back to civilisation. 
Ah Ngiu chops some logs to help ease the passage.